Farmers who agree to more cleanup measures could win reprieve

Field corn awaiting harvest. Farmers who agree to unspecified pollution control measures on their farms under a bill pending in Annapolis could win a 10-year reprieve from any new Chesaepake Bay cleanup requirements. (Kim Hairston, 2010 / April 5, 2013)

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Friday to a bill that would give Maryland farmers a 10-year reprieve from new Chesapeake Bay cleanup requirements, in return for their voluntarily doing more to reduce polluted runoff from their fields.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected a series of amendments to SB1029, including ones that would have limited the scope of the program to 50 farms for now, and that would have required participating farmers to disclose some information about their farms.

"We need to slow this down and give it more certainty," Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat said, adding that while she supported "agricultural certainty" in principle she believed the bill had been hastily drafted and was flawed. She also argued to "provide some sunshine" into the program, under which even the names of participating farmers would be confidential.

Her amendments and others offered by Democrats Jon Cardin of Baltimore County and C. William Frick of Montgomery drew only a handful of supporters, as Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, ardently defended the bill.

The program is voluntary and requires farmers to agree to unspecified pollution control measures not now required of them, the Baltimore city Democrat said. With the deadline for bay restoration efforts not until 2025, McIntosh said, getting farmers to step up now should accelerate the cleanup.

"I for the life of me don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to do that," she said.

Backing the bill beside farm groups was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the O'Malley administration. Nearly two dozen other environmental and civic groups opposed it, though, and urged it be held for further work. McIntosh implied their opposition stemmed from mistrust of farmers.  She acknowledged under questioning that if a future legislature canceled the program, participating farmers would still be entitled to delay compliance with any new rules until their 10-year reprieve is up.

"It’s called certainty for a reason," she said, arguing that participants in the program would be "model" farmers. "We want to give farmers some certainty."

The bill awaits a final vote in the House, and then must go back to the Senate for another vote, as the House made small changes to it.